Pietro Pellegri had barely taken his seat in the Monaco dugout last Sunday than his new club, who had just spent €25 million (Dh113m) on the 16 year old, were running out of substitutes.
Monaco, away at Lyon, lost their first-choice goalkeeper to injury with 15 minutes gone. By half time, they were down to 10 men, following the red card to Keita Balde.
By then Pellegri sensed this was probably too topsy-turvy a night for his debut, and had seen enough to confirm that his new workplace, despite the small stadium, despite the slightly surreal cityscape, all yachts and millionaires, will not lack raw excitement. Monaco, twice a goal down, a man short for most of the game, with a rookie keeper between the posts for 75 minutes, went on to edge a thriller 3-2, the winning goal scored in the 88th minute.
The reigning French champions, free-scoring upstarts who reached the Uefa Champions League semi-final last season, may have long given up the idea of retaining their domestic crown, and they may have dropped out of Europe already this season. But Monaco have not entirely lost the verve of their marvelous 2016/17. And they are evidently still persuading young footballers that there is no better place to let their talent be nurtured.
Pellegri, who made history by becoming the first 16 year old to score twice in a Serie A match, for Genoa back in September, joined Monaco with a big price-age for his age. “I don’t worry about the money involved,” he said. Nor about being the kid among adults. The bench he sat on at the weekend included two other teenagers.
It is the same bench that, this time a year ago, Kylian Mbappe, then 18, used to sit on a lot too, before he suddenly demanded a spot in Monaco’s starting XI and produced a dazzling run of goalscoring form through the knockout rounds of the Champions League. This summer, Mbappe will formalise his permanent transfer from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain, where he has been on loan since August, a transfer worth an initial €145m.
Mbappe was part of an exodus out of Monte Carlo six months ago, a lucrative one for Monaco. The sales of Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy to Manchester City - where they are sure to pick up a Premier League medal this season - brought in €108m; the transfer of Tiemoue Bakayoko – who has had a difficult season in England - to Chelsea was worth €45m. Rewind a little further through the Monaco audit, and there is Anthony Martial, a teenager when he joined Manchester United in 2015, a deal that long-term, could bring over €70m to the sellers; and the likes of Layvin Kurzawa (to PSG), Geoffrey Kondogbia (to Inter Milan) and Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), the latter three for combined fees of over €80m.
Over the last three years, Monaco have established themselves as the premier boutique in elite football for young talent, and, as they challenge Lyon and Marseille for the runners-up spot in Ligue 1, the club are proving capable of weathering the worst impact of the loss of key personnel.
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Sunday was a case in point. They had the previous week sold Guido Carillo, the Argentine striker, 26, to Southampton for €22m; against Lyon, his previous role as impact substitute was taken by the worldly Stevan Jovetic, who helped set up the late winning goal.
Pellegri, who turns 17 in March, hopes he will soon be making that sort of impression - and with Balde, the 22-year-old striker signed from Lazio last summer, now suspended, the Italian may get his first minutes sooner than anticipated. Balde’s dismissal, for two senseless bookings, was a small cautionary tale about the perils of immaturity, but Balde is still a footballer, skillful and pacey, who may yet add his name to the catalogue of profitable Monaco investments.
So might the creative, poised attacking midfielder Thomas Lemar, much admired by Premier League clubs, and 24-year-old Fabinho, the versatile, commanding Brazilian. And many more. “I was quickly convinced this was the club for me because it puts young players in the spotlight,” said Pellegri of his move.
For Leonardo Jardim, the Monaco manager who has proved such a fine curator of the nursery, the precocious Italian will not be rushing off anywhere else, at least for a while. “The important thing is to not to put pressure on the young man’s shoulders,” Jardim said. “Let’s see how he develops over the next year and a half.”